Book Review: Keeping An Eye On Art
by Julian Barnes
The 17 pieces collected in Keeping An Eye Open, the new nonfiction volume from novelist Julian Barnes, originally saw life in various review journals like The New York Review of Books or in Barnes’ famous book A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, and they largely follow a familiar pattern: an artist is taken up – in this case, largely French figures like Manet, Delacroix, Degas, Cezanne, Bonnard, and so on – introduced to readers presumed to be intelligent and fairly well-read, and then explicated in a genial but very comprehensive way, read for them by a patient and insightful mind.
Barnes’ career-long knack for facile prose serves him in large part much better here than in most of his novels, since here no plotting is required and the characters are already provided with vibrant personalities. In these chapters, it’s always entertaining watching Barnes capture those personalities, as with Courbet:
He was always a great rebuker, a setter-right in both art and life. No, it’s not like that, it’s like this: the head-on sky-billowed seascape, the cocky self-portrait, the dense female flesh, the dying animal in the snow, all are imbued with a descriptive and instructive zeal. He is an in-your-face Realist painter, aesthetically assertive. “Shout loud and walk straight” was apparently a Courbet family maxim, and throughout his life – in person, in paint and in letters – he shouted loud and listened delightedly to the echo.
Likewise our author’s explorations of the backgrounds of famous (and many obscure) paintings are unfailingly interesting, especially his extended musings on Gericault’s famous painting The Raft of the Medusa, which is punctuated with some choice British phlegm, as when Barnes asks “How do you turn catastrophe into art?”
Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We’ll have a play on the London stage within a year. A president is assassinated? You can have a book or the film or the filmed book or the booked film. War? Send in the novelists. A series of gruesome murders? Listen for a tramp of the poets. We have to understand it, of course, this catastrophe; to understand it, we have to imagine it, so we need the imaginative arts. But we also need to justify it and forgive it, this catastrophe, however minimally. Why did it happen, this mad act of Nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that’s what catastrophe is for.
Readers interested in this kind of lively docent’s guide to art will probably be reminded that they’ve seen it before; the late John Updike did much the same thing throughout his career, a stylistic and performance echo that’s so pronounced it virtually requires open acknowledgment, as in one of Barnes’ comments on Cezanne:
Movement in the paintings is generally the movement of the viewer’s eye, following the movement of the paint, rather than the representation of movement. Occasionally there might be a scurry of shorter brushstrokes animating the branches of a tree; but just as his colours rarely blaze – he used bright colours but in a grey light, as his friend and closest colleague Pissarro observed – his landscapes rarely stir. What they do, nonetheless, is express and inspire joy. One side of Cezanne holds the world down, paints it thickly as if to keep it pinned in place; another part has a buoyancy and dancingness about it – what John Updike called “this oddly airy severity, this tremor in the face of the mundane.”
Whether Updike or Barnes has the upper hand when it comes to the bright-but-accessible patois of this kind of popular art-writing will be for each reader to decide, and fortunately, no decision is really necessary, since Updike’s books Just Looking, Still Looking, and Always Looking are still available and still very much worth reading.